The star on her new Netflix series and how her own experience with fame prepared her to play Judy Garland.
Renée Zellweger was in first grade when she learned that acting could sting. To be an elf in a school play in Katy, Texas, she taped construction paper circles on her nose and cheeks—and discovered she was allergic to adhesive. “The bright red color stayed for a good week,” Zellweger recalls with a chuckle. (Her skin today is, of course, unblemished and radiant, befitting a movie star making the rounds to promote a TV venture.)
And while the reaction didn’t last, Zellweger’s acting ambitions stuck around despite two more decades of indignities: the high school drama teacher who said she looked too childish, the beef commercial she grinned through while vegetarian, the craft services lady who yelled “Cast and crew only!” at the young Dazed and Confused extra when she reached for a piece of gum. Even on the set of her first lead role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the perfectionist Zellweger was teased by her friend Matthew McConaughey for wanting to film one more take of witnessing her best friend get impaled by a meat hook.
In those early days, Zellweger loved acting more than she loved movies. To be honest, she hadn’t seen many movies. Her tiny hometown didn’t have a theater, and her immigrant parents—a Norwegian nurse and a Swiss engineer—only took the entire family to the pictures once, when they saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When Zellweger first moved to Hollywood in 1993, she didn’t even know her apartment was the infamous Alto Nido from Sunset Boulevard because, well, she hadn’t seen that, either.
But Zellweger lacked in Hollywood knowhow, she more than made up for in talent. Within three years, Jerry Maguire proved she was ready for her close-up. And another, and another, from every angle and every genre until she became America’s workaholic sweetheart. Was it true that Zellweger could do everything? You betcha, from Farrelly Brothers’ slapstick to Bridget Jones’ romantic foibles. She trudged through the Civil War epic Cold Mountain as confidently as she tapped across Chicago. But should Zellweger do everything? That question was trickier. After 15 years of constant hustle—plus three Oscar nominations and a win— Zellweger took a break, planning to figure out how her work-life balance had led to exhaustion. That hiatus lasted six years.
“I’m better at taking care of myself first,” Zellweger says. “I didn’t recognize that that was an option. Now, it’s a priority.” Today, sitting cross-legged on a couch in West Hollywood, she seems calm and relaxed. Acting, says Zellweger, “doesn’t have to be at the expense of my health and my life.” Yet, we’re speaking now because she’s returned to the screen (both big and small) to deliver two of the most fascinating performances of her career.
First up, Zellweger slinks across the frame as a sinister venture capitalist in the Netflix limited series, What/If, a throwback to the naughty erotic dramas of the 1980s and ’90s. When her character Anne Montgomery leans in, look out for a shiv. In episode one, Anne is introduced legs-first sipping a gin martini and reciting her own aspirational quotes like, “Everything happens for a reason and the reason is you.” Minutes later, she offers a young scientist named Lisa (Jane Levy) $80 million for a night with her husband (Blake Jenner). Considering the character, Zellweger cracks, “We could all use a little of Anne’s audacity, couldn’t we?”
Playing the character allowed Zellweger to revel in her daring delivery. “She was a treat,” the actress says. “Every day, she says that thing that you wish you could say, but you wouldn’t dare. But Anne does.” As What/If is Zellweger’s first episodic show, the whole shoot felt like her own personal dare—a rehearsal nut shooting a pilot before the series finale had even been written. “Everything was a surprise,” she says, “which was a really interesting new way of working for me—slightly uncomfortable.”
Anne’s name, says series creator Mike Kelley, is an homage to Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. “I want to write somebody this complex and fascinating and tragic and cruel and selfish and heartbreaking,” he explains. Zellweger had never done TV—and she’d never played a sexual predator—but she said yes straightaway. “I think she wanted to do something that was a little scintillating and exciting—and against type,” Kelley says. Sauntering toward confrontation in a gold gown slashed to the thigh, Zellweger has invented the Silicon Valley Valkyrie.
“I felt like she could just squash me with her stiletto,” admits co-star Levy. As Lisa, the wife who’s as vulnerable as a cocktail onion, Levy spends much of What/If dodging Anne’s attacks. Literally. In the first scene they filmed together, Anne shoots an arrow at Lisa’s head. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is the show we’re making,” says Levy. Outré, absolutely. But Zellweger was all in.
Archery is “addictive,” Zellweger says with a grin. “It’s fantastically violent.” She draws an invisible bow and unleashes hellfire at the wall. “Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Rip! Rip! Rip!”
Practice makes precision. Zellweger loves homework, like when she worked three weeks undercover at a London literary agency to play Bridget Jones. She’s been preparing for her other major comeback role—Judy Garland in the upcoming biopic Judy—for her entire life. Or as Zellweger says, “Life is Judy Garland.”
Katy, Texas didn’t have a movie theater, but Zellweger’s parents had a stereo and Garland “was just always there on the record player,” she says. When the Bridget Jones publicity tour took her to a Tokyo karaoke spot, Zellweger grabbed a mic and belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“Isn’t that funny?” she asks. “The only time I’ve ever done karaoke.” (Though Zellweger does do her own singing in Judy.) And when Bridget Jones scored Zellweger her first Best Actress nomination, her awards gown was an homage to Garland in Till the Clouds Roll By. “She had that red lipstick and she was wearing that yellow dress and I thought, ‘Oh yes, that. I’ve got to figure that out!’“
Of course, there’s also playing a forged, prodded, and scrutinized legend when one is also a forged, prodded, and scrutinized legend. Both Zellweger and Garland have the gift and peril of being the kind of vulnerable, sensitive star who seems so close to earth that strangers feel comfortable pelting them with rude questions. Cabbies, housewives, and studio executives have all needled Zellweger about her body and her ex-boyfriends, a torment Garland suffered as well. “Everybody felt that she was talking to them, personally,” notes Zellweger. “That she somehow related to their pain.”
To director Rupert Goold, Zellweger and Garland are tethered by their knack for survival. “Renée had the strength and ability to take herself out of the limelight for a period to rethink who she was and what her values are,” says Goold. “Some people have really celebrated that, and some people have been gossipy about it—and I think that’s quite close to Judy.”
When Goold called “action,” he says he saw Zellweger capture Garland’s contradictions. “She has this deep, remote interior quality,” he says. “She absolutely sparkles in her smile, and yet her eyes contain great reservoirs of experience and sadness.”
Zellweger is thoughtful in her consideration of Garland. “The combination of gifts that she was born with are just indescribably important in terms of what she inspires in other artists,” she says. But does she think Garland would fare better in today’s different though equally cutthroat entertainment industry? Zellweger considers the question seriously. “Perhaps,” she says finally. “And perhaps I don’t know. Because then you see stories like Amy Winehouse and you just wonder why?”
Goold sees a similarity between his star and her character. “That mapping of Renée’s own career and the way people see it with Judy’s is really, really fascinating,” he says. He can’t wait for people to see her performance. He knows just what they’ll call it: “The Renée-ssance.”
I posit the term to the star herself. “Renaissance?” asks Zellweger.
Renée-ssance. You know, like the McConaissance.
She screams with laughter. “Really?! Wait? McConaissance?” Zellweger is giggling so hard she can barely breathe. “I missed the McConaissance, I’m afraid! Sounds like something you should go to the store and buy: ‘We need some McConaissance!’“
Is this the first time she’s heard the word ‘Renée-ssance?’
“Pronounced that way, yup!” gasps Zellweger.
It won’t be the last.